A charming place
Where brightness reigns,
Laughter and smile
The place has a past
That oozes sadness,
So much cry and pain
Behind this lovely den.
Hope and love though
Permeate this house,
It beckons the one
Who’s left, not gone.
A narrow, crowded, serpentine lane flanked by dilapidated two storied houses was the one that was supposed to lead to my destination. However, jostling among the crowd and making my way through the street vendors, I started doubting my friend’s words and her judgement. My friend who is a hard core foodie as I am has however not disappointed me so far in her assessment of any food joint. And so with my unwavering respect for her opinion I went ahead with my objective. I was probably five yards away from my target; my inquisitive nose detected an aroma from a fresh bakery. And I knew I was heading the right place.
My momentum doubled, I hurried to the spot I was so eager to discover and to my delight I hit on a lovely, quaint cafeteria, so alien to its surroundings. Absolutely oblivious of its background, it stood there on its own to prove its unique existence. The cafe would have fallen into place, had it been set in an English countryside or on the side of a French boulevard. Sadly, it didn’t get any support from the outside environs. I started wondering how such a charming eatery could exist in such a place.
The moment I entered the cafe, I profusely thanked my friend for recommending such a place. The entire place exuded freshness—fresh coffee, fresh cookies, fresh pastries and the list went on. And the interior was so tastefully done that it was difficult to go outside once you came in. Lovely wall hangings—a few originals of famous painters, old film posters, some ethnic masks, adorned the smooth wall accentuating the beauty of the cafeteria. I thought that this place probably belonged to a rich, classy person, who was too fond of this city and thus took so much pain to set up such an eatery amidst the hullaballoo of the lane. Nevertheless, the real reason behind opening this cafe in the middle of concrete and chaos still eluded me. And I was determined to unearth it.
As I found one seat for myself in the not so crowded cafe, the serenity of the place calmed my excited nerves. I looked at other clientele and overheard their conversations with waiters that reflected their familiarity with the place. I realised that they were the regulars in this cafe and most of them had no intention of leaving the place soon. The crowd was a mixed one—of young students, little kids with their parents and senior citizens. A few foreigners too were among the customers. And that was no surprise as the menu included snacks like quiches, Danish pastries, varieties of cheesecakes, assorted sandwiches, and a few healthy salads to compensate the otherwise decadent menu. My epicurean self overshadowed all other senses of mine and gladly surrendered itself in front of such an appetising menu. Like a glutton, I kept on ordering—starting from comparatively humble sandwiches and salads to creamy, buttery, calorific desserts. My self-indulgence knew no bounds.
Having satisfied my gluttony, I took a cup of coffee and was desperate to meet the couple who created such a heaven in the middle of din and dirt. I talked to one of the waiters, who told me to go upstairs of the building, where the couple stayed. It seemed they were quite accessible, considering the ease with which I reached their apartment on the first floor. No sooner did I ring the bell, the door was opened without any delay. The lady who opened the door was middle-aged and very elegant, and her husband was sitting on a sofa reading the newspaper. I wasn’t surprised to witness an immaculately decorated living room. I didn’t expect any less than that after my encounter with the cafe. I was politely requested by both of them to take a seat. I briefly introduced myself and apologized for my curiosity to meet the creators of such a charming place, which was an oasis away from the local pandemonium.
I was offered a cup of coffee, which I politely declined, remembering my royal treat to myself in the cafe. With a journalistic approach I tried to find out the raison d’être behind the inception of this place–why it was named Manu cafe or why the name was so Indian when the eatery didn’t serve anything but western dishes. I expressed my happiness for discovering such a place and of course, congratulated the couple for creating a blissful haven for the weary and greedy people like me who always possess a ravenous appetite for exotic food. Incongruous to its surroundings, this cafe was the Mecca for foodies.
I went into raptures about the cafeteria and I would have continued longer had I not been interrupted by a cup of tea and a few homemade cookies, brought by my generous hostess, in spite of my initial refusal to take a cup of coffee. It was a judicious decision on her part to stop my over-enthusiastic compliments. This time I couldn’t refuse the tea; the appendage in the form of assorted cookies looked so enticing. As I took a sip in my tea, my host opened his mouth for the first time. And I was in no way prepared for the story he told me.
My host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. Sen, went to Buckinghamshire in the eighties immediately after their marriage. They fell so much in love with the English countryside that they didn’t think of returning to India. Their obsession with good food and travelling made them explore the continent and both of them loved to try different cuisines both in exotic restaurants and at home. Their passion for food almost inspired them to start an eatery in their locality. However, since Mrs. Sen was due with her first child, they diverted their attention from their dream production and devoted their time to the well-being of their yet to be born child and postponed their business venture.
After Manish aka Manu was born, apart from taking care of the basic needs of the baby, they decided to expose him to good culture and that included good music, good books and of course good food; for the latter Manu had to wait till he was three because his parents thought he would be too young to appreciate good food before that. Once the door of culinary delights was open to the little one, his joy knew no bounds. He was showered with delicacies, either prepared at home or brought from outside.
Like his parents, Manu too became a connoisseur of variety of cuisines and perhaps a little too precociously. By the time he was seven, he could enumerate the unusual ingredients of a dish with as much ease as a participant in a spelling bee giving his expertise on orthography. Manu’s knowledge in cookery thrilled his parents too and they even reconsidered their long cherished desire and that was to open their own cafe, this time their son’s know-how being incorporated.
When Manu was about twelve and was in middle school, the signs of early adolescence started showing up in his behaviour. The sudden wayward behaviour of an otherwise affable lad shocked and pained his parents but it was thought to be transient and natural. At home Manu became more and more uncommunicative and his parents tried to give him as much quality time as they could to improve the thawed relationship between them. Mrs. Sen struggled to reach out to her son through his favourite dishes.
However, apart from giving sparse comments on a dish made by his mother and that too after too much of cajoling from her side, he became extremely aloof and would be confined to his room, when he was home. His bizarre behaviour included coming back home late or night-stays in an unknown place, without prior notice to his family. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sen were so worried about him that they even thought of changing their locality and his school too. And they had to take a drastic decision the day their only son came back severely injured after a fight with one of his friends. The idea of coming back to India had never crossed their minds before.
However, this time both their families put pressure on them referring to the old age of their parents and specifically to the unruly behaviour of their recalcitrant son. Besides, Mr. Sen was offered a lucrative job offer here in Bhopal, and he thought it would be prudent on his part to accept such an offer, if he had to return to India. He was not getting younger, after all.
The decision was made. Manu had no role to play in it apart from being the main reason for this exodus and in his case, to a foreign land. His parents admitted him in an international school thinking that the transition to another system would be smoother. Unfortunately, Manu didn’t regain his genial nature and became more and more stubborn with days. His introvert nature added to the complexity. His association with outsiders–whether with his classmates or with his relatives virtually became naught, adding to the woes of his parents. Manu’s existence in the house was only physical; his emotional detachment distressed his parents. They helplessly tried to find out a reasonable explanation for such behavioural pattern, which had by then become an existential reality, but were absolutely clueless. Manu’s idiosyncrasies became so disturbing day by day that his parents decided to take him to a psychiatrist. One day, very diplomatically they raised the issue in front of their son and almost convinced him that it was for his own good that he should see a professional. Manu silently listened to their proposal; neither did he agree nor protested.
The next week after this discussion, Manu’s parents were planning to hold his sixteenth birthday. They wanted to make it a close family affair and thought that only three of them would celebrate the day. Manu’s mother had a feeling that this birthday might bring some welcoming changes in her son and with a lot of optimism she left for the temple early morning and came back with the prasad for her dear son. When she had left, both her husband and son were asleep; she didn’t like to wake them up.
After she came back, she went straight to her son’s room to give him the prasad and found the door ajar. Manu was not on his bed. Frantically, she searched for him everywhere. Mr. Sen who was sleeping, got up with a start when he heard the news. The couple went to each and every house, every nook and corner of the locality, to look for Manu but nowhere was he found. They had no other resort than to go to the police station. They couldn’t expect their son to leave the city so soon and were hopeful that the police would come to their rescue. Unfortunately, days passed and whether it was due to the inefficiency of the local police or because of Manu’s nimbleness, the distraught parents were yet to receive any encouraging news. They exhausted all their resources but no news of their son reached them.
Weeks passed, so did months and Manu’s parents didn’t realise how a year had passed after their son’s sudden flight. They still kept their hopes alive and envisaged how one day Manu would come back to them in his old, jovial self. After a couple of years since that dreadful day, they had this weird fantasy that if they started a cafeteria dedicated to their missing son, the news might reach him somehow and since Manu too had shared this dream, he would come back to join the family business. The cafe thus took its birth and was so called as a tribute to their gourmet-loving son. Perhaps they thought that the aroma of freshly baked goodies would reach their son and bring him back to them, just the way it did when he was a kid.
My host stopped abruptly and I looked at him with curiosity with an expectation of getting some encouraging news. But Manu’s father kept quiet and I didn’t have the courage to look into the eyes of the couple. Never in my life did I realise that behind such a beautiful creation, there was so much pain. When I left the cafe with heavy heart, I looked at the delectable eatables but somehow I lost my appetite.